Year Released: 2009
Directed by: Nora Ephron
Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina
(PG-13, 123 min.)
"Julia, you are the butter to my bread." Paul Child
Yum! As light as a buttery croissant, as effervescent as dry champagne, and as warm and earthy as its centerpiece Beef Burgundy, this delicious film is a must see. Meryl Streep is divine as the cooking icon, Julia Child, wielding the trademark voice and physical idiosyncrasies as fearlessly as Julia ever did her stainless steel kitchen knife.
The film interweaves two true stories. One involves Julia Child before she was the Julia Child, starting with her post war years in Paris with diplomat husband Paul. Though she loves the vibrant city, and literally inhales its delicious cuisine – her first taste of Sautéed Sole Meuniere is “an epiphany”-- Julia doesn’t quite know what to do with herself, trying a course in hat making before enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. And even then, they put her in a remedial version of it, where the imperious harridan who runs it starts with instructions on how to boil an egg. All foreigners, she assumes, are culinary cretins.
Fast forward to the near present, New York 2002, where an almost thirty Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a bright but frustrated writer, has abandoned her half finished novel and settled for a government job. All her nakedly ambitious friends routinely throw their success in her face. Julie is just as lost as Julia was in Paris, but not enjoying it nearly so much. Somehow, Julia Child reaches through time and space from her Paris digs to inspire Julie. Well, the idea is really from Julie's husband Eric (Chris Messina), but it is Julia who offers the inspiration. Julie will start a blog – one of her uppity friends already has – and she will blog about cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking -- all 536 recipes. And she will do it in all in one year. Or in her own words:
Government drone by day, renegade foodie by night. Too old for theatre, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else, Julie Powell was looking for a challenge. And in the Julie/Julia project she found it. Risking her marriage, her job, and her cats’ well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment.
365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen.
Perhaps it is their spirit as much or more than the sensuous arte de la cuisine that sets this film apart. Julia is the embodiment of a charming gate crasher, the bigger the gate, the greater her glory. She charms the sour-faced French street merchants, canoodling their food with streaks of delight that wins them over completely. The all male classmates at Le Cordon Bleu – she has managed to skip the how to boil an egg lower level – are a bit more difficult. They manage to chop through their requisite onions in no time, while she slices like a filing clerk that has to sing the alphabet before sorting each entry. That night at home she gives herself a tutorial, working her way through enough of the white bulbs on the overflowing kitchen table to drive her husband out of the apartment for a breath of air. After that, she is fearless, going forth with her knife like a knight into battle.
Julie Powell is not so fearless as she is determined. She doesn’t crash the gates so much as huddle outside them, sometimes wallowing in self-pity. She drops a stuffed chicken on the floor, where its trussed cavity explodes like a soggy IED, leaving her in tears and self-absorbed pity. She burns her Boeuf Bourguignon , remakes the entire dish a second time, only to find out the reporter and important food writer coming to dinner have cancelled. Somehow, though, she trudges on, often given an assist from the ever supportive Eric. He gets her through boiling a pot full of live lobsters by singing “lobster killer” to the tune of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” as she nearly expires in the process.
And of course, that brings up another essential ingredient – the two wonderfully supporting husbands. Paul toasts Julia” “You are the butter to my bread and the breath to my life.’’’ After eight years writing and testing every single recipe for her monumental book, she despairs at yet another publisher’s rejection. He tells her that her book is a masterpiece and that it will change the world. And he is right.
Quite a bit of the film’s delight comes from its exploration of the earthy side of Julia Child. She might cook in heels and pearls, but she is not in the least straight-laced. You’ll have to watch the film itself to hear what she says about the cannelloni she burns her fingers on as she impetuously pulls them from the pot bare-handed. And I bet you will raise your eyebrows a bit when you learn what Julia serves for dessert when she comes home to lunch with her husband. And those yearly Valentine cards – Julia said they were never organized enough for Christmas cards – especially the bathtub shot of the two floating in bubbles, are a hoot.
And did you know she was a spy? At a commanding 6 feet two, Julia was too tall for the service, but wanting to do her part in World War II, she joined the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, established by FDR. There she meant Paul Child, a worldly ten years her senior, who she says in the film “almost won the war singlehandedly.” The film states she was only a clerk of sorts, but others differ. A year ago classified material was released that revealed her wartime efforts for the OSS, and this entry by Andrew Schneider coyly titled "Secret Ingredients" is tantalizing. Schneider called her “flamboyance and grace in a tall package,” and details the telling wink she gave him when she denied any substantive role in espionage.
In this age of cynicism, it is a blessing to see Julia Child’s life and legend brought to life through the dedication of someone generations removed from her. A boon that her spirit, her joi de vivre, and her loving relationship with her husband are not old fashioned but classic, a template that is still very much alive today, sometimes even in Hollywood.
Julie Powell dreads deboning a duck and boiling a live lobster, two acts of faith she will have to perform before her year-long quest to cook every single one of Julia Childs recipes is complete.
But there is one recipe she treasures. She recalls an special dinner her mother made when her father’s boss came over for dinner. Nothing could go wrong. Her mother served Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon, a hearty beef stew. When the heady aroma filled the house, Julie knew then, that everything was going to be all right.
Too bad that her experiences with the dish do not prove to be so positive. She is having a reporter and a famous food expert over to dinner and decides that this is the dish to serve, especially since she can prepare it the night before and not be so rushed for the dinner itself. The only problem is the two and one-half cooking time.
Diligently she sets the timer and dozes on the couch – through the alarm, only to be awakened by her cat’s plaintive meow and the odor of burned beef. So she has to redo everything the next day only to have the dinner cancelled at the last minute.
I know you will not be plagued by these problems. Or at least I hope not. But be warned. Do not prepare late at night and doze on the couch while it cooks unless you have a very loud alarm clock.
The recipe is very long, but you wouldn’t settle for anything less than the authentic Julia Child, would you?
Here are a few other French recipes you might enjoy:
(So easy I'm thinking Julia might not approve.)
As is the case with most famous dishes, there are more ways than one to arrive at a good boeuf bourguignon. Carefully done, and perfectly flavored, it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man, and can well be the main course for a buffet dinner. Fortunately, you can prepare it completely ahead, even a day in advance, and it only gains in flavor when reheated.
Vegetable and wine suggestions: Boiled potatoes are traditionally served with this dish. Buttered noodles or steamed rice may be substituted. If you also wish a green vegetable, buttered peas would be your best choice. Serve with the beef a fairly full-bodied, young red wine, such as Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone, Bordeaux-St. Émilion or Burgundy.
For 6 people.
A 6-ounce chunk of bacon
Remove rind, and cut bacon into lardoons (sticks, ¼-inch thick and 1 1/2-inches long). Simmer rind and bacon for 10 minutes in 1 ½ quarts of water. Drain and dry.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
A 9- to 10-inch fireproof casserole 3 inches deep
1 tablespoon olive oil or cooking oil
A slotted spoon
Sauté the bacon in the oil over moderate heat for 2 to 3 minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon. Set casserole aside. Reheat until fat is almost smoking before you sauté the beef.
3 pounds lean stewing beef cut into 2-inch cubes
Dry the beef in paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp. Sauté it, a few pieces at a time, in the hot oil and bacon fat until nicely browned on all sides. Add it to the bacon.
1 sliced carrot
1 sliced onion
In the same fat, brown the vegetables. Pour out the sautéing fat.
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons flour
Return the beef and bacon to the casserole and toss with the salt and pepper. Then sprinkle on the flour. Set casserole uncovered in middle position of pre-heated oven for 4 minutes. Toss the meat and return to oven for 4 minutes more. (This browns the flour and covers the meat with a light crust.) Remove casserole, and turn oven down to 325 degrees.
3 cups of a full-bodied young red wine, such as one of those suggested for serving, or a Chianti
2 to 3 cups brown beef stock or canned beef bouillon
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
½ teaspoon thyme
A crumbled bay leaf
The blanched bacon rind
Stir in the wine and enough stock or bouillon so that the meat is barely covered. Add the tomato paste, garlic, herbs and bacon rind. Bring to simmer on top of the stove. Then cover the casserole and set in lower third of pre-heated oven. Regulate heat so liquid simmers very slowly for 2 ½ to 3 hours. The meat is done when a fork pierces it easily.
18 to 24 small white onions, brown-braised in stock.
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup beef stock
salt & fresh ground pepper
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
2 sprigs parsley
1 pound fresh mushrooms, quartered
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms.
Heat the butter and oil in a large skillet and add the onions to the skillet. Sauté over medium heat for about ten minutes, rolling the onions about so they brown as evenly as possible, without breaking apart. Pour in the stock, season to taste, add the herbs, and cover. Simmer over low heat for about 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but retain their shape and the liquid has mostly evaporated. Remove the herbs and set the onions aside.
For the mushrooms, heat the butter and oil over high heat in a large skillet. As soon as the foam begins to subside add the mushrooms and toss and shake the pan for about five minutes. As soon as they have browned lightly, remove from heat. Set the mushrooms aside until needed.
When the meat is tender, pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a saucepan. Wash out the casserole and return the beef and bacon to it. Distribute the cooked onions and mushrooms over the meat.
Skim the fat off the sauce. Simmer sauce for a minute or two, skimming off additional fat as it rises. You should have about 2 ½ cups of sauce thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If too thin, boil it down rapidly. If too thick, mix in a few tablespoons of stock or canned bouillon. Taste carefully for seasoning. Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables. (Recipe may be completed in advance to this point.)
For immediate serving: Cover the casserole and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce several times. Serve in its casserole, or arrange the stew on a platter surrounded with potatoes, noodles, or rice and decorated with parsley.
For later serving: When cold, cover and refrigerate. About 15 to 20 minutes before serving, bring to the simmer, cover and simmer very slowly for 10 minutes, occasionally basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce.
Recipe Source: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking